Symptomatic by Danzy Senna

Symptomatic by Danzy Senna reminded me so much of Notes on a Scandal that I started to wonder which story influenced the other. Symptomatic predates the movie but who knows how source material can influence an artist. (See Small Ceremonies by Carol Shields for a book that deals with just this issue.)

Symptomatic is the story of a young woman, on a writing fellowship and alone in New York for the first time, who forms an unusual friendship with an older colleague, Greta. Greta becomes more possessive and controlling as the novel progresses, eventually forcing the narrator to break off the friendship. Sounds a lot like Notes on a Scandal so far. The “scandal” in Symptomatic if there is one, is that both the narrator and Greta are of mixed race and can pass as either black or white depending on how they choose to dress and to act. The black people they meet assume they are black and the white people they meet assume they are white. The narrator is not exactly sure where she fits in or where she wants to fit in and her friendship with Greta does not make the situation any easier, though Greta sees her as a kindred spirit, someone who knows what she is going through.

Symptomatic takes on the tone of a psychological thriller early on. There is clearly something wrong with Greta from the beginning, but the narrator tries to convince herself and her readers that things are okay. The events of the novel, both those Greta reacts to and those she initiates, lead us to conclude that Greta is unbalanced well before the narrator finally ends their friendship. What happens in the end, seems to come out of left field to me, but you can decide for yourself. Overall, I found the issues of identity to be very interesting, not ones I had ever considered before, and the psychological suspense to be fairly gripping.

So even with an ending that was a little too Fatal Attraction for my taste, I’m giving Symptomatic by Danzy Senna four out of five stars.


After first publishing this review on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B., back in 2008, I became something of a champion of Danzy Senna.  If you haven’t read anything by her, you should give her a try.  Caucausia, the other one of her books I reviewed, is also excellent.  I’m still surprised to see that I only gave this one four stars.  It’s a book that stayed with me for a very long time, as have Ms. Senna’s other novels.  She’s a very haunting writer.  You won’t see the world in quite the same way after you’ve read her.  That’s my definition of a great book.